Visiting West Bank reshapes perspective of front-page news

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I almost choked on my pita and hummus when I learned my cousin lived in a West Bank settlement. This was exactly one year ago. I had traveled to Israel with a group of journalists, and was able to extend my stay to spend time with some relatives in Nir Galim, an Orthodox moshav 40 minutes south of Tel Aviv.

I had met these relatives only once before. We had a lot of catching up to do. Within minutes of getting comfortable in their homey kitchen, Miriam — my mother’s first cousin — and her husband, Pinchas, explained that their daughter Noa moved to a settlement several years earlier.

This news really contorted my logic. I always thought of settlers as somewhat crazy. But my family — well, not crazy. I had to see this for myself.

“Can we go there?” I asked.

Miriam smiled, but told me there simply wouldn’t be time during my short, two-night stay at her home.

The next morning: “Do you still want to visit Noa?” she asked, peeking through the door of the guest room.

An hour later, I stared out the car window as we drove through Palestinian towns where Arabs sold goldfish and flowers by the side of the road. I was amazed by the beauty of the West Bank, its gently rolling hills and clear blue sky. It was not the war zone I imagined.

We arrived in the settlement of Eli to a panoramic view. The town was quiet, save for chirping birds and the wind. I don’t know what I expected of the West Bank — Gunshots? Soldiers? A dirty, barren wasteland littered with mortar shells and blown-up buildings? — but it certainly wasn’t the serenity that surrounded me.

Noa’s husband, Netanel, was my tour guide while we were in Eli, which has a population of 3,000. He teaches Torah to Orthodox teenage boys in preparation for their military service. We climbed into his minivan, outfitted with stone-proof glass, to begin the tour of Eli’s five hilltop neighborhoods, which from a scenic overlook resemble Lincoln Log homes.

Each neighborhood has a school, a synagogue, a playground and a small market. A post office, shopping center, rec center and clinic are located in the biggest and most central neighborhood. Netanel said the goal is to eventually develop the land between each hilltop, to bring the entire town together.

As we stood at a lookout on the side of a road, I saw Qaryut, the nearby Palestinian village. I recognized it by its rooftops: The homes in Israeli settlements have red peaked roofs, while homes in Arab villages have flat, white roofs, and a skyline accented with the tall peak of the mosque.

“Look, we are living together. Arab and Jew. We can live together. There is more than enough space for all of us,” Netanel said as I gazed at Qaryut.

I always thought of settlers as strange for wanting to live in such a controversial and sometimes violent area. Netanel told me that even Israelis — particularly in Tel Aviv and other coastal cities — don’t understand a settler’s passion for living in the West Bank.

The West Bank is the true Jewish homeland, he said, the epicenter of our spiritual history, and so Jews should inhabit what is rightfully theirs.

This is the part of the column where you’re probably expecting some sort of revelatory political opinion. But this story is not about developing sympathy for settlers, or for Arabs, or about how visiting the West Bank made me pro-this or anti-that.

This story, rather, is about how the West Bank has become an icon rather than a place where people — Arabs and Jews alike — pack picnic lunches and tuck their children into bed.

People often talk about borders they have never seen. We do it in this country too, when we talk about building a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, even though most of the people engaged in the debate have never been there.

I was lucky to safely explore the West Bank. You might not have the means, and that’s OK. Just remember that it’s impossible to really know a place unless you see it with your own eyes.

Stacey Palevsky lives in San Francisco. She can be reached at [email protected].

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.